updated 11/6/2007 12:25:20 PM ET 2007-11-06T17:25:20

Oh, those Europeans. They know how to live. Six-week vacations, fine wine, great museums ... and consumer protection for airline passengers.

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In the U.S., thanks to the laissez-faire attitude toward business in general, consumers have very few protections when it comes to a flight cancellation or delay. Federal law basically only covers denied-boarding compensation (that's when a passenger is bumped off a flight) and that protection, a cash payment ranging from $200 to $400, is ridiculously low and out of date.

But these are not government regulations (though they stem from pre-deregulation government edicts) and there is absolutely no cash or other monetary compensation for delayed or canceled flights within or without the airlines' control.

However, in Europe things are quite different. Consumers actually have some rights. These forward-thinking rules also apply to non-Europeans who are flying out of Europe (but not those flying to Europe, unfortunately). They put to shame the paltry protections offered in the U.S.

These regulations are spelled out on the European Commission's air transport Web site. Once there, click on "Regulation (EC) No 261/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 February, 2004," which is a PDF file. This regulation was put in force on Feb. 17, 2005. If you're traveling from a European airport you'd do well do download this document, print it out, carry it with you, and present it to your airline in the event of a cancellation or lengthy delay.

British Airways' has a statement on its Web site detailing the compensation terms under the regulations, but combative low-cost carrier Ryanair barely mentions the EC rules in its contract.

U.S. airlines, except for US Airways, do not post these rules on their Web sites. Even US Air only includes the cash compensation for a delayed flight from Europe back to the United States. Obviously, most airlines would be very happy if you don't see this article or the EC rules.

In addition to dealing with delay and cancellation monetary compensation, the EC rules also specify that hotel accommodations and meals must be provided for delays a day or more in length.

And it's clearly spelled out that should if the delay or cancellation result in the purchased flight "no longer serving any purpose in relation to the passenger's original travel plan" (meaning that the trip is now "futile"), said passenger is entitled to a full refund within 7 days, even on "non refundable" fares. The compensation limits also apply to bumping (denied boarding due to an oversold flight), providing more compensation than US airlines are required to pay.

Oh, and there's this: "This Regulation shall apply without prejudice to a passenger's rights to further compensation." Meaning? Take them to court if you're not happy. Hello, Washington?

Exceptions and legal challenges
Deep in the EC web site, however, there is this disclaimer: "Airlines are not obliged to pay compensation if they can prove that the cancellation is caused by extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken (e.g. political instability, meteorological conditions, security risks, unexpected flight safety shortcomings, wild cat strikes) — safety remains the most important right of each passenger! In these cases, the burden of proof lies with the airline, and passengers still have the right to information, assistance and re-routing."

So, presumably, the airline has to show you some kind of proof that weather or a strike caused the delay.

Needless to say, some European airlines and airline associations were not happy with this regulation and challenged it in court, but so far they have been unsuccessful.

What you're owed for cancellations and delays
The following compensation rule (paragraph 1) applies if your flight is cancelled fewer than seven days before departure and you're offered an alternate flight that is scheduled to depart more than one hour later than originally scheduled, and that flight arrives more than two hours later than your original flight; or if your original flight's departure is delayed for two or more hours:

  • 1.(a) euros250 for all flights of 1,500 kilometers or less [note: at the time of this post 1 euro is worth about $1.45; a kilometer is about 0.62 miles]
  • (b) euros400 for all intra-Community flights of more than 1 500 kilometers, and for all other flights between 1 500 and 3 500 kilometers;
  • (c) euros600 for all flights not falling under (a) or (b). In determining the distance, the basis shall be the last destination at which the denial of boarding or cancellation will delay the passenger's arrival after the scheduled time.

But there are exceptions to Rule 1, which are covered by paragraph 2:

2. When passengers are offered re-routing to their final destination on an alternative flight ... the arrival time of which does not exceed the scheduled arrival time of the flight originally booked

  • By two hours, in respect of all flights of 1,500 kilometers or less; or
  • By three hours, in respect of all intra-Community flights of more than 1,500 kilometers and for all other flights between 1,500 and 3,500 kilometers; or
  • By four hours, in respect of all flights not falling under (a) or (b), the operating air carrier may reduce the compensation provided for in paragraph 1 by 50 percent.

(Translation: Let's say your flight leaves more than two hours late, but your alternate flight of 932 or fewer miles arrives fewer than two hours late, the airline can reduce its penalty by half, to euros125 or $181; or, if the flight is not more than 3 hours late arriving for flights up to 2,174 miles, you'll get $290; or not more than four hours late arriving for long haul flights, you'll get $437. However, if your flight leaves more than two hours late, and arrives more than two, three, or four hours late, then the 50 percent discount does not apply. It's a bit complicated, but the bottom line is that you're covered for severe delays when traveling within or from Europe.)

A third rule, paragraph 3, states: "The compensation referred to in paragraph 1 shall be paid in cash, by electronic bank transfer, bank orders or bank checks or, with the signed agreement of the passenger, in travel vouchers and/or other services."

Tell that to American Airlines when all it offers you is a voucher for a Diet Coke at Heathrow.

For more information and tips about your rights as an airline passenger traveling from or within Europe, visit Air Passengers' Rights, a site established by Amandine Garde and Michael Haravon, two European lawyers.

More exceptions
These regulations may not apply if:

  • As stated earlier, the airline can prove that the cancellation was caused by "extraordinary circumstances") by which we assume they mean strikes, air traffic control meltdowns, weather, and the like
  • You are traveling on a free ticket other than a frequent-flyer ticket
  • You're informed of a cancellation at least two weeks before departure
  • You're informed of a cancellation one to two weeks before departure and offered re-routing that gets you to your destination no more than four hours late
  • You're informed of the cancellation between fewer than 7 days before departure and you are offered rerouting that gets you to your destination fewer than two hours late.

Like any law, this one is subject to amendment and further legal challenges. But it's pretty clear that the United States could learn a thing or two from Europeans when it comes to protecting air passengers' rights. (Hey, they've been writing laws far longer than the U.S. has.) For further details, you can email the EC at

© 2013 Imaginova Corp.


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